Painting priest draws faithful to ‘prayerful place’

“The Thaw,” “Water’s Edge” and “Some day” were among many abstract paintings by Father Chris Haydinger displayed at St. Mary’s Hopsital in Richmond from December 2023 through February 2024. Father Chris serves the hospital as chaplain. (Photos/Kristen L. Byrd)

You can often find Father Chris Haydinger walking the halls of St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond. As a hospital chaplain, he has spent many days bearing witness to some of the most harrowing and heartbreaking moments in peoples’ lives.

He began his journey as chaplain after retiring from 42 years of parochial ministry, serving at parishes throughout the diocese. Most recently, he served 15 years as pastor of St. Ann’s, Ashland. Soon after trading a parish for a hospital, he made another big life decision: he picked up a paintbrush.

It wasn’t the first time he painted; his interest in art was first piqued in high school and continued through college, seminary, and beyond. He experimented with different mediums sporadically over the decades, but by the time he retired, it had been years since he had created any artwork.

With a paintbrush back in his hand, Father Chris turned to a new medium: abstract acrylic painting. Some of his art was displayed throughout December and January, as well as the first half of February, in St. Mary’s Hospital, the same hospital where he now serves as chaplain.

Painting and prayer

Father Chris has long seen art and religion as deeply connected. “Art has always been a very beloved way of expressing faith,” he said. “In virtually every church, from chapel to basilica, art brings the Bible alive.”

He also stated that any art he creates is the direct result of his personal spiritual connection with God. “When I’m painting, I feel like I enter a prayerful place where I can tune out the noise around me, and I hope and pray for the Spirit to bring about something creative and new that I hadn’t exactly imagined,” he said. “I’m always surprised by the result.”

“Some day” by Father Chris Haydinger. Acrylic on canvas. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

Father Chris’ first assignment was at the parish of St. Mary’s, Richmond. While there, he met a retired art teacher named Mildred Weeks, who took him under her wing and taught him watercolors. He also worked with pastels and photography before moving to acrylics. While his previous art had been mostly representational, he was also drawn to abstract art.

The vivid colors of acrylic paint were ideal for Father Chris’ new endeavor. Instead of painting realistic and recognizable subjects as he had before, he wanted the viewer’s imagination to run wild: to see what they wanted to see, and feel how they wanted to feel, instead of being told what to see and feel.

“Think of how stained glass doesn’t have to have images, but sometimes just the color, which changes throughout the day with the light moving through it, can touch us deeply,” he explained. “Abstract or nonrepresentational art invites an experience, an opportunity, to experience God’s presence through emotion, through feelings.”

Father Chris debated whether to title the art in this collection, but ultimately chose to do so. He doesn’t want the viewer to focus on the titles, as the paintings can express and evoke different things for different people.

“I don’t think titles are important, and perhaps lead the viewer down a road that they might not have chosen on their own,” he said. Instead, he “invites the viewer to find his or her own meaning based on their experience.” He also noted that he titled his art based on his own reactions after it was already complete.

Living the Gospel

According to his former parishioners, Father Chris’ homilies were also works of art. Over the years, he built a reputation as a homilist who connected with his parishioners and helped fan the flame of their faith with his words.

Matthew Brady, music minister at St. Ann’s, said, “Father Chris would come down to the people and break open the Word of God into simple, easy-to-understand terms that we could take and live throughout our daily lives. You could hear a pin drop when Father Chris preached as he had the attention of everyone in the pews. We looked forward to his homilies each week.”

“Water’s Edge” by Father Chris Haydinger. Acrylic on canvas. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

Fellow parishioner Allison Krause agreed, saying, “As a lifelong Catholic, I can honestly say that Father Chris is one of the best homilists I have ever heard. Every Mass was something I looked forward to … He taught us how to ‘live’ the Gospel.”

Father Chris continues to teach people how to live the Gospel, not just in words or paintings, but also in deeds. He has a master’s degree in clinical social work and served as a therapist with Commonwealth Catholic Charities for several years.

He joined Bon Secours Mercy Health in 2020 – the same year COVID-19 caused some hospital wards to overflow and the world to go on lockdown. Due to the strict guidelines, hospital patients seldom, if ever, were allowed visitors – but they were allowed chaplains for comfort and care. Father Chris spent countless hours praying with, and for, them.

“Starting at the hospital during COVID was very difficult,” said Father Chris. “I resumed painting during this time, which was a wonderful way to let go of the stress of the day and enter into a contemplative place.”

He enjoys bringing the Holy Eucharist to the infirmed, anointing the sick, and bonding with the patients and hospital staff. Ministering to the sick has always been an important part of Father Chris’ vocation.

Liz Whitehead and her family visited many churches after moving to the Richmond area in 2006. It only took one of Father Chris’ homilies in 2007 for her to join St. Ann’s. Whitehead’s family became more involved in the parish as time went on and became close with Father Chris. Eventually, Whitehead started working at the church as a bookkeeper. She recalled how Father Chris was a great source of support after her husband died unexpectedly in 2015.

“The Thaw” by Father Chris Haydinger. Acrylic on canvas. (Photo/Kristen L. Byrd)

“He dropped everything and was at my side, every step of the way,” she said. “He was there for me and my nine-year-old son, calling every week to check on us and always making my son feel special when he saw us at Mass. He was truly a guardian angel.”

‘Enjoy the experience’

In addition to St. Mary’s Hospital, Father Chris’ art can be found in parishioners’ homes and on the walls of St. Ann’s. Now that he is no longer the pastor, the art serves as a welcome reminder of his lasting impact on the community.

“Much like his homilies, I am always moved emotionally when he shows us a new piece he is working on,” said Whitehead. “About a year ago, he gifted me one of his watercolors. I treasure this painting and I think of him each time I walk by it at my house.”

The hall at the hospital where Father Chris’ work is displayed is aptly called the “Serenity Walk.” During the exhibition, his artwork was also available to purchase, with proceeds going directly to support the hospital’s volunteer programs.

“What a beautiful and engaging show! His abstract style allows viewers to see his art in a way that is unique to them, which was Father Chris’ intent,” said Brady.

“Really, I just hope people enjoy the experience,” said Father Chris. “I just hope people walk down the hall and smile.”


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